The President of Bangladesh is a harried man. Lt. Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad faces the prospect of a showdown with opposition leaders who have stepped up a campaign to oust him over the past two weeks.
An eight-party opposition alliance has planned a mass rally outside the President's secretariat today. Two other alliances, as well as an Islamic fundamentalist party, have also called antigovernment rallies. The government has countered by placing a ban on processions and demonstrations in a 10-mile area around the secretariat. At press time yesterday, it was unclear whether either side would back down.
The opposition's main demands include: the immediate resignation of General Ershad; an end to the military's involvement in politics and administration; and fresh parliamentary elections to be held under a non-partisan, caretaker government.
The recent spate of protests and demonstrations, which led to violent clashes with police, was sparked July 12, when the government party put a bill through Parliament that allows military officers seats on the nation's 64 district councils. Critics say the law is a step toward bringing the military back to power, despite the election of a civilian government and the lifting of martial law last November. A general strike last week brought the nation to a virtual standstill for 54 hours.
President Ershad's main political problem appears to be that, even though he has retired from the Army, he is still identified more as a soldier than as a civilian. In addition, his credibility as an elected official is under question. Last year's presidential election was boycotted by all major opposition parties, and widespread charges of fraud made the poll controversial.
Ershad has long argued for an Army role in running the state. This, he has said, would end the process of coups and counter-coups that has plagued Bangladesh since 1975.
The opposition apparently viewed the July 12 parliamentary bill as a bid to legitimize power sharing between the military and civilians. The bill was passed by the government Jatiya Party after all opposition groups, save one, stormed out of Parliament in protest.
But this bill is not the only reason for antigovernment sentiment. A stringent budget, introduced after suggestions from international lending institutions, has raised prices and living costs. Tuition at government-run schools was doubled, and fees have been imposed for treatment at government hospitals, among other measures. Per capita gross domestic product in this nation of 105 million people is $148. An estimated 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
Ershad has reportedly been advised by some supporters to return the controversial bill to Parliament for reconsideration. The apparent hope is that such a move would soften the antigovernment mood. Public dissent, say many observers here, has reached such a peak that it has weakened Ershad's standing beyond repair.